The debate over cloning-to-produce-children is chiefly a debate about a moral vision of the family that is increasingly widely held, one in which reproduction is seen as a freely chosen project of autonomous adults. More and more, this view is supplanting the traditional image of the family, in which romantic love between a man and a woman is tied together with marriage and the begetting of children.

The new moral image of the family, based on a doctrine of reproductive liberty, is an appealing one for a liberal society. The importance of freely made choice in this image of the family reflects the way philosophers sometimes imagine the structure and origins of liberal society: as autonomous individuals freely entering into contracts with one another to advance or defend their interests. This image of the family was perhaps most evocatively expressed in the Supreme Court’s 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling, which extolled the importance of every individual being able to “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” through access to technologies and techniques that add to their reproductive autonomy (in that particular case, abortion).

The central feature of this image of the family is adults freely choosing to “have a child.” Thanks to biotechnology, what it means to “have a child” is increasingly becoming radically open. Legal contracts allow prospective parents to choose which individuals with which biological relationships will be considered the child’s parents (whether a particular woman is a “surrogate” or the recipient of a “donor embryo” is a matter of choice, not biology). Reproductive technologies increasingly allow parents to choose and control the kind of biological relationship they will have with their children.

Unlike political liberalism, however, the struggle for reproductive freedom is, to a large extent, not about ending systematic political or social oppression. Rather, it is aimed at “ending reproductive roulette,” or progressing from “chance to choice” or from “chance to purpose,” to borrow from the titles of three books. Reproductive technologies can allow couples who happen to be affected by the accidents of infertility or genetic disease to have healthy children. But these technologies can also dramatically expand the range of choices individuals can make about reproduction—allowing single individuals to have children without involving a husband or wife, or allowing couples or individuals to choose to have children who will possess a specific set of genetic properties by using DNA from some exceptional individual.

Of course, not all of those who find aspects of this vision of the family appealing endorse or even approve of cloning-to-produce-children. Many people in a liberal society believe that it is better for parenthood to be planned than for it to be “accidental,” and that it is good for children to be “wanted.” But few people, outside a handful of professional bioethicists, believe that autonomous choice and rational control are all there is to the family. Some technologies that allow individuals to plan their families, such as contraception, are approved by the vast majority of Americans, while others, such as abortion, are deeply divisive. Technologies like cloning and genetic engineering are widely condemned.

Children As Gifts: A Different Moral Image of the Family

The widespread opposition to human cloning and the controversies over other reproductive technologies are signs that Americans still find meaning in a different moral image of the family—one in which children are seen as gifts to be accepted with gratitude and in a spirit of openness to their fundamental newness. In this image of the family, the relationships and moral obligations of parents and children are not freely chosen, but are embedded in their biological and social contexts. This image of the family and its place in the natural and social order was perhaps best articulated by Edmund Burke in this famous passage:

Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform. Parents may not be consenting to their moral relation; but consenting or not, they are bound to a long train of burthensome duties towards those with whom they have never made a convention of any sort. Children are not consenting to their relation, but their relation, without their actual consent, binds them to its duties; or rather it implies their consent because the presumed consent of every rational creature is in unison with the predisposed order of things. Men come in that manner into a community with the social state of their parents, endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation.

In this image of the family, moral duties arise from the natural relationship of parents to children, duties that are not autonomously chosen or made in contracts. In our liberal society, where we enjoy so much freedom to choose those with whom we will associate in work, politics, and friendship, the family, for the most part, is a place of unconditional obligations. We rightly value our freedom to seek a “social state” other than that of our parents, but the obligations of love and support that parents owe to their children and the obligations of honor and respect that children owe to their parents remain truly obligatory, not matters of free choice.

The appeal of this understanding of the family surely helps explain why most Americans find the idea of human cloning morally repugnant. More than any other reproductive technology, cloning would undermine the “giftedness” of children, and because there are so few substantive reasons for using cloning-to-produce-children—cloning is more likely to cause harm to babies than to ensure their health—moral approval for cloning represents an extreme commitment to reproductive autonomy for its own sake.

But autonomy is a powerful force in our culture, so we should not imagine that cloning-to-produce-children will forever remain anathema to the American public. Other foundations of family life that have been held as common sense since time immemorial have been increasingly eroded by advocates of unfettered autonomy in a remarkably short time. Taking a stand against cloning now, while there is still a consensus among Americans that cloning is profoundly wrong, will be an essential part of a defense of the family in coming years.

But while it is important that we prohibit cloning-to-produce-children to prevent the long-term degradation of the family, we cannot do so without also making a strong case against the much more immediate threat posed by cloning-for-biomedical-research.

Cloning and Human Life: The Case Against Cloning-for-Biomedical-Research

While there is currently widespread agreement that cloning-to-produce-children would be unethical, and even fairly broad support for its prohibition, public opinion is much more divided on the moral acceptability of cloning-for-biomedical-research. This fact is partly attributable to confusion and partly to the different moral arguments that apply to the different ends cloning may serve.

Disputes over terminology surely compound the confusion. Some of the laws proposed to prohibit cloning-to-produce-children while permitting cloning-for-biomedical-research identify the act of “cloning” not with the creation of a cloned human embryo for research purposes, but only with the transfer of such an embryo to the uterus of a woman. By contrast, many scientists, ethicists, and advocates use the term “cloning” for both practices—calling one “therapeutic cloning” and the other “reproductive cloning.” Though both these terms use the word “cloning,” they are still not entirely accurate. So-called “therapeutic cloning” will not be therapeutic for any patients in the near future, and will never be therapeutic for the cloned embryo, which will be destroyed. Furthermore, the distinction between the two implies that “therapeutic” cloning is not “reproductive,” when both are in fact forms of reproduction—both create new human life.

Unlike cloning-to-produce-children, which would be pursued only by those with a distorted understanding of the goods of procreation and family, cloning-for-biomedical-research serves a noble aim—the discovery of new knowledge that might make possible new modes of healing. But, like cloning-to-produce-children, and arguably to an even greater extent, cloning-for-biomedical-research involves immoral actions. In cloning-to-produce-children, after the embryo is cloned, it is transferred to a woman’s uterus so that it can develop into a child and be born, while in cloning-for-biomedical-research, the embryo is destroyed.

The availability of morally acceptable alternatives makes cloning-for-biomedical-research less justifiable. In our full report, we show what is at stake in the debate over cloning-for-biomedical-research, and why it is important to reject human cloning whatever its purpose is.

Exploitation of Embryos

The central moral objection to cloning-for-biomedical-research is that it involves the deliberate killing of human embryos. Much of the debate over cloning-for-biomedical-research therefore concerns the question of the moral status of the embryo. Is the embryo “one of us,” despite its apparent lack of distinctively human features and capacities? Do these youngest of human beings deserve our care and protection, or are there purposes that are sufficiently important to warrant killing them or using them in experiments?

We maintain that, because human embryos are human beings, they must “never be used as a mere means for the benefit of others.” Human embryos are members of the human species at the earliest stage of biological development. They are tiny in size and unfamiliar in appearance, but they are unmistakably individual human organisms—they do not become human at some later developmental stage. Occasionally scientists will aver that “science does not offer a hard-and-fast answer to the question of when human life begins.” The notion that it is impossible for science to answer the question of when human life begins, or even that the question is meaningless, can be convenient for scientists who want to use embryos as raw materials in their technological projects, but it also represents an abdication of the responsibility of science to provide us not only with technological power over nature but also with answers to questions about nature, including answers that might make us reconsider the moral implications of some of our growing technological power over nature.

Cloning is not the only area of research that involves the deliberate destruction of human embryos. Most other forms of embryo-destroying research rely on embryos originally created for reproductive purposes left unused, stored frozen in IVF clinics. But in the case of cloning-for-biomedical-research, human embryos are created for a purpose that requires their destruction. While the abandonment of one’s embryonic offspring represents one of the most morally vexing aspects of modern reproductive technologies, the creation of new human lives solely to produce biomedical research materials is a further, distinctive form of human exploitation.

Cloning-for-biomedical-research is a deeper violation of the meaning of the procreative act and the obligations we owe to future generations than cloning-to-produce-children. Both involve seeing offspring as products of our will, made to serve our purposes. But the direct aim of creating human lives in cloning-for-biomedical-research is the destruction of those lives, and the transformation of their bodies into biomedical research supplies. It literally involves manufacturing and commodifying human life: biotech companies advertise human embryonic stem cells as having been “derived under current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) conditions.” Advocates of such embryo-destroying research speak not of “embryos” but of the “products” of techniques like IVF or cloning. In cloning-for-biomedical-research, the act of human reproduction is transformed entirely into a means of satisfying the desires and furthering the projects of autonomous adults, in complete indifference to the interests of the new human beings created.

There are other serious moral problems associated with cloning-for-biomedical-research, including the exploitation of women who will be needed to provide eggs. And cloning-for-biomedical-research will lay the technical and practical groundwork for cloning-to-produce-children and a number of other morally troubling acts. But we should not forget that cloning-for-biomedical-research is already at the bottom of the slippery slope—it is an act of deliberately creating human beings solely so that they can be destroyed for the benefit of others.

The Witherspoon Council on Ethics and the Integrity of Science is a project of the Witherspoon Institute and is chaired jointly by Robert P. George of Princeton University and Dr. Donald W. Landry of Columbia University. The above is an excerpt from the council’s new report, The Threat of Human Cloning: Ethics, Recent Developments, and the Case for Action.